Commonwealth Indian: Beauty & the Beast

Before it even opens, Commonwealth Indian on Old Georgetown Road attracts my attention.  The restaurant stands out, with its name emboldened on a bright red background that spans across the building. It’s an alluring addition to the growing list of restaurants at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda.

Commonwealth Indian exterior
Commonwealth Indian exterior

All too often my restaurant visits feel like research projects.  I know what to expect from the décor and I’ve pre-determined what to order.  I decide to approach Commonwealth Indian from a new angle- I’m just going to eat here and see what happens.  

Here’s what I know in advance: Executive Chef/Owner Sunil Bastola has two restaurants named Bollywood Bistro in Northern Virginia.  I haven’t scoped out countless photos of the décor or the food online.  While Tom Sietsema writes an early review of Commonwealth Indian in The Washington Post, I make a conscious decision to delay reading the piece until after my visit. I do peek to make sure he likes the restaurant, but that’s it.  For once, I am not amped up by pre-conceived notions and feverish buzz about a restaurant.  I like the feeling. 

Once inside Commonwealth Indian, my pulse quickens, as my eyes soak in the details.  A long, tiled corridor is lined on one side with gold leather benches adorned with pillows. Built-in neon-lit shelves are seductively filled with bottles of alcohol. It’s actually the back of the bar- an area which also oozes with glitzy appeal.

Commonwealth Indian corridor
Commonwealth Indian corridor

The dining room is equally dazzling, bathed in a sumptuous palette of lime green and blue, with gold accents galore.  Two gold metal Bengal tigers are focal points on the wall. There’s some kind of peacock thing happening on another wall. I can’t really figure it out without closer examination, but it’s time to turn my attention to the menu.

Commonwealth Indian dining room
Commonwealth Indian dining room
Commonwealth Indian peacock wall
Commonwealth Indian peacock wall

Based on my feelings about the décor, I’m pre-disposed to like the food here. And I do.

From the Prelude section of the menu I’m most intrigued by Kavak aur Swarn Aloo.  Potatoes are dressed up with black truffles, dabs of chutney, a smattering of crackers, and tiny flecks of gold. While it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by the elegant ingredients, it’s a satisfying opener.

Commonwealth Indian potatoes and yogurt patties
Commonwealth Indian potatoes and yogurt patties

Tandoor roasted chicken drumsticks rubbed with mint, cilantro, and chili is well-cooked and well-seasoned. While it’s not so pretty on the plate, it’s a fine selection for those who want flavor but prefer to shy away from heat.

Commonwealth Indian drumsticks
Commonwealth Indian drumsticks

I like to walk on the wild side when it comes to spice, and so I’m happy with fried yogurt patties, which are a version of Indian chaat or street food. The crisp patties are filled with figs and charred leeks and accompanied by a sauce laden with chilis.

For even more heat, I go on to Goan Shrimp with vindaloo sauce.  Here is the fierce bite and sparkle that I clamor for when it comes to Indian food.

A progression to entrees reveals vivid dishes from regions that traverse the country.  There is sautéed shrimp with coconut milk and tamarind pulp from the Southern coast of Malabar, Kashmiri lamb simmered with yogurt from the Northwest, and a Punjabi stew of braised lamb and spinach.  Yellow crab curry incorporates Maryland lump crab simmered in turmeric, coconut milk, red chili and cumin.

Commonwealth Indian yellow crab curry, naan, Kashmiri lamb and more
Commonwealth Indian yellow crab curry, naan, Kashmiri lamb and more

Many of the dishes are soupy and require copious amounts of rice or bread- there are six options to choose from- to soak up the sauce. If you’re trying to avoid or limit carbs, you’ll just want a large spoon to drink it all in. The thick and creamy sauces are spice-filled treasures.

Attention to beauty is primarily centered on the décor rather than the plate at Commonwealth Indian, and that’s okay. It’s more important for a dish to taste good rather than merely look like it’s ready for a photo shoot.

After two visits for dinner, I’m eager to return for a hangout at the striking bar or to dig into what appears to be a sumptuous lunch or brunch buffet. With tigers on the wall and feisty flavors on the plate, Commonwealth Indian is poised to become a roaring success.

Commonwealth Indian, 11610 Old Georgetown Road, Rockville, MD

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